Las Vegas’ life-saving flood control system doubles as a work of art

Center For Land Use Interpretation, Peripheral Flood Control Structures of Las Vegas, 2017

Las Vegas is one big potential flood zone. No one outside the city believes it. We often don’t even believe it. But while our flash-flood season (July to September, though floods can occur any time it rains) isn’t as horrific as what Texas has been experiencing, we dismiss it at our own peril. Property is destroyed in Valley floods; people drown. And the main reason that our city doesn’t wash into Lake Mead is because the Clark County Regional Flood Control District prevents it.

Created by the Nevada Legislature in 1985 through a quarter-cent sales tax, the CCRFCD oversees a network so staggeringly large, it’s amazing we can take it for granted. There are 91 detention basins and 612 miles of flood channels—some above ground, much of it below—threaded through the Valley, says CCRFCD spokeswoman Erin Neff, with another 34 basins and 205 miles of channels planned for construction over the next 20 to 30 years.

The channels sit bone-dry most of the year. A sizeable homeless population occupies the belowground channels, but the aboveground network—concrete arroyos and other giant, futuristic-looking constructions—have been hidden in plain sight, until now. From September 29 through November 10, UNLV’s Donna Beam Gallery will present Peripheral Flood Control Structures of Las Vegas, a show by the Center for Land Use Interpretation that reimagines those aboveground flood channels as land art, in the spirit of Michael Heizer’s City.

It makes sense. The channels and basins are striking in their austere way. And though the CCRFCD didn’t authorize the show (Neff surmises it was shot with drones), the agency looks forward to seeing its work in a new light. “We’ve always considered these facilities to be very artistic,” Neff says.

Unfortunately, the channels have something else in common with Heizer’s work: They’re largely off-limits to visitors. (Neff admits that’s tough to enforce: One basin, at the base of the Spring Mountains, has become a very unofficial off-road driving and shooting range.) But you might have visited some detention basins and not known it: Charlie Frias and Desert Breeze parks are designed to be used “360 days a year,” Neff says. Meaning: On those other five days, be somewhere else.

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